Form Factors: How to Find the Best One for Your Embedded PC
Posted on November 3, 2021
If you have ever paid attention to the technical specs of a computer’s motherboard, you may have come across terms like Micro-ATX or Mini-ITX. Referred to as form factor, this name apparently decides the category of the motherboard.
But how exactly do these form factors differ? Which form factor should you go for? Here is the complete overview.
What is a Form Factor?
Technology runs on standards. Be it the wavelength of Bluetooth communication to the size and shape of a USB port, there are standards to describe their exact specifications. This ensures that devices made by different manufacturers can work together without an issue.
Similarly, the motherboard of a computer has a number of industry standards. Called form factors, these standards describe the size, supported components, data lanes, ports, and many other small technical details that are essential for a computing system to work.
Without established standards, it would be impossible to assemble computers using components from different manufacturers, as each individual motherboard would have its own unique requirements.
That is not to say there is no variation. Different form factors have been designed for different types of computers, depending on their needs and required capabilities. A desktop computer, for example, uses a motherboard of a different form factor than a small embedded computer installed in a kiosk.
The ATX form factor can be called the first proper standard for motherboards. Prior to its release in 1995 by Intel, motherboards tended to include specifications only for principal components; any expansion modules had to be plugged in separately using riser cards.
The ATX standard, however, specifies the exact dimensions as well as the connector interfaces available, making it much easier to add more components. Even the layout of the power supply is standardized, preventing any voltage-related issues from plaguing new connections.
The form factors in use today have diverged significantly from the original ATX design, branching into multiple variants with more compact sizes and low power needs. The ATX standard is only used for high-performance desktop computers which need a large number of expansion slots.
In the early days of computing, things like the sound card or the ethernet card had to be installed separately. In modern systems, however, these functionalities are usually integrated into the motherboard itself, freeing up expansion slots for other components.
Therefore a smaller motherboard was devised, offering fewer expansion slots. Called the Micro-ATX, the form factor is the most common design seen in most home computers. The only appreciable drawback compared to the standard ATX is that it has a maximum of four expansion slots, which is more than enough for most use cases.
As the other ports are identical, you can use the same components compatible with an ATX motherboard without a problem.
So far we have looked at ATX variants that can be used to build proper PCs or laptops. But what about computing applications that may not need the whole suite of features? Industrial computers rarely need discrete graphics cards and need to keep their heat generated low.
The ITX form factor has been specially designed for small, embedded applications, where fanless cooling can be used to keep the noise – and the power bill – down. Utilizing special low-power chips, these motherboards provide a single expansion slot, which can be used for a GPU if required.
This is the form factor of choice for most industrial and commercial computers, as it provides the best balance between performance and size. It is small enough to fit into the thinnest of fanless enclosures and is powerful enough to support the low TDS versions of mainstream processors. From industrial automation to advanced billing systems, almost all embedded computers are built upon Mini-ITX boards.
Nano and Pico-ITX
Continuing the trend of miniaturization, the Nano-ITX and Pico-ITX form factors further reduce the size of the motherboard. This comes at the cost of compatibility, as these motherboards cannot support standard processors or even most expansion cards.
As a result, they are best suited for specialized applications that require extremely small size and limited functionality. The Internet-of-Things, for example, needs a large network of simple devices with basic capabilities. The Nano-ITX and the Pico-ITX form factors are useful for building these smart devices.
Which is the Best Form Factor For Embedded Computers?
The choice of the correct form factor depends a lot on the actual application in question. Generally speaking, the larger the form factor, the easier it is to get hardware for it. This means that the ultra-small sizes are only suitable for specific devices that need to be that tiny.
For the most part, the Mini-ITX is the ideal form factor for industrial motherboards. It is small enough for fanless setups and can work with standard components. The I/O options are sufficient for even commercial needs, and an expansion slot for a PCIe component too.
And with Global American’s service, you can get a custom PC built according to your needs on any motherboard form factor. We tailor the computer to your specific requirements, making sure that it possesses the correct specs for tackling the problem.